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The sinking of the French ocean liner SS La Bourgogne on the morning of 4 July 1898 was one of the most disgraceful of disasters in maritime history due to the cowardly and criminal behavior of the crew. Instead of the heroic sacrifice that has often been the shining moment in such a terrible tragedy, the crew of the steamer “fought like demons for the few lifeboats and rafts”, drawing out their knives and threatening passengers with it. Out went for a toss “Women and children first!”, famously established by the soldiers of the sinking Birkenhead, half a century earlier, and by the crew of the Titanic fourteen years later. Only one woman passenger from La Bourgogne was saved, and all children perished.
The La Bourgogne was built in 1885 by Société Nouvelle des Forges et Chantiers de la Méditerranée, in La Seyne-sur-Mer, France. She was a sleek-looking ocean liner, nearly five hundred feet in length with four masts and twin funnels. She was made of iron and steel, and was propelled by a single screw propeller giving her a maximum speed of 17 knots.
In her short career of 12 years, the La Bourgogne was involved in at least three accidents. In 1896, she rammed an anchored British steamer at the entrance to New York harbor and sank her. She was also involved in a collision with the SS Toreador damaging her stern.
On July 3, 1898, the La Bourgogne left New York City for Le Havre on what would be her final voyage. Early morning the next day, about 60 nautical miles south of Sable Island near Nova Scotia, the British sailing ship Cromartyshire rammed into the starboard side of La Bourgogne. Dense fog had reduced visibility to only about 20 yards, and the Cromartyshire was travelling at full speed.
Cromartyshire’s damaged bow after the collision. Photo: 17qq.com
La Bourgogne began to list immediately to starboard. Many of the lifeboats on that side were wrecked in the collision and the boats on the port side proved impossible to launch due to the list. As the ship started to list and the stern went under, the crew began to panic. Showing little concern for the passengers, the crew began piling up on whatever lifeboats were available and launched them to sea. Some used fists and oars to beat up any passengers who attempted to come near the boats. Some passengers were stabbed. Half an hour later La Bourgogne completely disappeared beneath the waves, taking with her almost every woman and every single child.
The Kansas City Journal reported on July 7, 1898:
The last few minutes on board the Bourgogne witnessed some of the most terrible scenes of horror and cruelty that have blotted the history of a civilized race. Instead of heroic discipline which so often has been the one bright feature of such awful moments, the crew of the steamer fought like demons for the few lifeboats and rafts, battering the helpless passengers away from their only means of salvation, with the result that the strong overcame the weak and the list of 162 saved contains the name of but one woman.
The crew of the Cromartyshire wasn’t aware of the extent of the damage until after the fog had thinned. They had mistaken the alarm whistles and rockets from the unseen La Bourgogne as an offer for assistance, when in reality it was a call for help.
La Bourgogne was carrying 506 passengers and 220 crew. The Cromartyshire managed to pick up 173 survivors, out of which fewer than 70 were passengers, with only one woman rescued out of approximately 300 on board. Not a single child was rescued. Almost all first class passengers died in the disaster, with survivors largely limited to steerage passengers and sailors.
As many passengers were American, the incident caused a massive outrage in the United States, and based on the tales of rampant brutality on board the sinking La Bourgogne, it was assumed that an impartial investigation into the tragedy and a fair trial of those accused of the horrific crimes would be held. But the whole matter was whitewashed and the French authorities put the blame on a handful of foreign sailors who had been traveling on the French ship in steerage. Source
# Flashback in maritime history – Sinking of SS La Bourgogne, 4 July 1898 with the loss of 549 lives, Maritime Cyprus
# Pascal Kainic, The collision and foundering of La Bourgogne, oceantreasures.org
Categories: Sea Stories
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